Are GM Crops Killing
By Gunther Latsch
A mysterious decimation of bee populations has German
beekeepers worried, while a similar phenomenon in the United States is
gradually assuming catastrophic proportions. The consequences for
agriculture and the economy could be enormous.
Walter Haefeker is a man who is used to painting grim
scenarios. He sits on the board of directors of the German
Beekeepers Association (DBIB) and is vice president of the European
Professional Beekeepers Association. And because griping is part
of a lobbyist's trade, it is practically his professional duty to warn
that "the very existence of beekeeping is at
problem, says Haefeker, has a number of causes, one being the varroa
mite, introduced from Asia, and another is the widespread practice in
agriculture of spraying wildflowers with herbicides and practicing
monoculture. Another possible cause, according to Haefeker, is
the controversial and growing use of genetic engineering in
far back as 2005, Haefeker ended an article he contributed to the
journal Der Kritischer Agrarbericht (Critical Agricultural
Report) with an Albert Einstein quote: "If the bee disappeared
off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of
life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no
more animals, no more man."
Mysterious events in recent months have suddenly made
Einstein's apocalyptic vision seem all the more topical. For
unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing
-- something that is so far only harming beekeepers. But the
situation is different in the United States, where bees are dying in
such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be
dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some
experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified
plants in the US could be a factor.
Felix Kriechbaum, an official with a regional beekeepers'
association in Bavaria, recently reported a decline of almost 12
percent in local bee populations. When "bee populations
disappear without a trace," says Kriechbaum, it is difficult to
investigate the causes, because "most bees don't die in the
beehive." There are many diseases that can cause bees to lose
their sense of orientation so they can no longer find their way back
to their hives.
Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers
Association, almost simultaneously reported a 25 percent drop in bee
populations throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer,
declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that
"a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar,"
is killing the bees.
Politicians, until now, have shown little concern for such
warnings or the woes of beekeepers. Although apiarists have been given
a chance to make their case -- for example in the run-up to the German
cabinet's approval of a genetic engineering policy document by
Minister of Agriculture Horst Seehofer in February -- their complaints
are still largely ignored.
Even when beekeepers actually go to court, as they recently
did in a joint effort with the German chapter of the organic farming
organization Demeter International and other groups to oppose the use
of genetically modified corn plants, they can only dream of the sort
of media attention environmental organizations like Greenpeace attract
with their protests at test sites.
that could soon change. Since last November, the US has seen a
decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous
incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of
the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of
their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a
decline of up to 60 percent.
an article in its business section in late February, the New York
Times calculated the damage US agriculture would suffer if bees
died out. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have
estimated the value bees generate -- by pollinating fruit and
vegetable plants, almond trees and animal feed like clover -- at more
than $14 billion.
Scientists call the mysterious phenomenon "Colony
Collapse Disorder" (CCD), and it is fast turning into a national
catastrophe of sorts. A number of universities and government agencies
have formed a "CCD Working Group" to search for the causes
of the calamity, but have so far come up empty-handed. But, like
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of
Agriculture, they are already referring to the problem as a potential
"AIDS for the bee industry."
thing is certain: Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most
cases, all that's left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead
bees are nowhere to be found -- neither in nor anywhere close to the
hives. Diana Cox-Foster, a member of the CCD Working Group, told
The Independent that researchers were "extremely alarmed,"
adding that the crisis "has the potential to devastate the US
is particularly worrisome, she said, that the bees' death is
accompanied by a set of symptoms "which does not seem to match
anything in the literature."
many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee
viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have
disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time
and were infested with fungi -- a sign, experts say, that the insects'
immune system may have collapsed.
scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually
leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or
parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies
that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold.
"This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself
which is repelling them," says Cox-Foster.
Walter Haefeker, the German beekeeping official, speculates
that "besides a number of other factors," the fact that
genetically modified, insect-resistant plants are now used in 40
percent of cornfields in the United States could be playing a role.
The figure is much lower in Germany -- only 0.06 percent -- and most
of that occurs in the eastern states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania
and Brandenburg. Haefeker recently sent a researcher at the CCD
Working Group some data from a bee study that he has long felt shows a
possible connection between genetic engineering and diseases in
he study in question is a small research project conducted at
the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004. The researchers examined the
effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called
"Bt corn" on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had
been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent
that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there
was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee
populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in
the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie
happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly
stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the
insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison
According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University
of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the
bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have
"altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently
weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps
it was the other way around. We don't know."
course, the concentration of the toxin was ten times higher in the
experiments than in normal Bt corn pollen. In addition, the bee feed
was administered over a relatively lengthy six-week period.
Kaatz would have preferred to continue studying the phenomenon
but lacked the necessary funding. "Those who have the money
are not interested in this sort of research," says the professor,
"and those who are interested don't have the
Translated from the German by Christopher
Comment RM: Is that an authentic quote from
Einstein? As a biologist myself, I fail to see how such a number
could be calculated; he wasn't a biologist, so I really wonder whether
he did proffer such an estimate.
Anyhow, this is a most menacing epidemic which pro-GM govts
are failing to investigate. In parts of the USA, bees are fed
commercial 'patties' incorporating pollen which could be from some of
the many GM-plants lately grown in the USA. Deviant metabolism
in those GM-plants could conceivably poison bees that eat the